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The theologians, You and I

Sunday 17 February 2019

By Dr. Oliver Langworthy, Associate Lecturer in Patristics, St. Mary’s


I recently published on the subject of how Gregory Nazianzus received the title of the Theologian. The article was awarded the Eusebius Essay Prize from the Journal of Ecclesiastical Theology (available here). While my interest in that article was on the historical attribution of the title of ‘the Theologian’ to a specific figure, my research made me pensive about what a theologian is and who might reasonably be called one today.

Is someone a theologian simply because they study theology? The Oxford English Dictionary does not clarify this: “A person who engages or is an expert in theology.” At what level of engagement is one reasonably identified as a theologian then? Most undergraduates who study theology in the United Kingdom don’t self-identify as such. Few enough postgraduates do so either. When one graduates from a doctoral programme studying theology or biblical studies, one is, at the very least, a doctor. Depending on the institution this might even be a ThD rather than a PhD, but is even a doctor of theology necessarily the same as a theologian? I tend to think not. It isn’t something granted by an institution but instead independent of formal training. Why not simply look to contemporary theologians and use them as a guide? A glance at Wikipedia’s “List of Christian Theologians” article yields a list populated by more than a few people who never called themselves theologians however much they engaged in theology.

Part of the problem is that ‘theologian’ is not a title of Christian invention. In Eusebius of Caesarea’s Preparation for the Gospel he identifies the figures of Orpheus, Musaeus, and Linus as the oldest Greek theologians. Eusebius elsewhere even makes mention of a figure called Seleucis the Theologian, a figure roughly dated to the first century AD who received his title for his books on the gods. If one asked Augustine, he might reject the idea of Christian theologians altogether. In his City of God, Augustine engaged with Varro’s tripartite division of theology into mythic, civil, and natural. While he permits that the natural theology of the philosophers can, in some cases, approach near the truth revealed in Christian Scripture they do not achieve it. They, Augustine argued, remain bound to the concept of sacrifice to multiple deities. This faint praise does not extend to mythic and civil theology, which he closely links and castigates for their shallowness and obeisance to the fantastic gods. Gregory of Nazianzus had plenty of his own scorn for, especially, mythic theologians. Writing against the Emperor Julian in his fourth oration he said that: ‘[F]able is the resource not of persons confident in their cause, but of those giving it up: but if these tales be fictions – in the first place let them produce us their undisguised theologians, in order that we may have to deal with them.’

This is not to say that Christians were averse to identifying their own theologians. In arguing for the divinity of the Spirit in his fifth theological oration, Gregory identified the most archetypal of Christian theologians: ‘For, tell me, what position will you assign to that which proceeds, which has started up between the two terms of your division, and is introduced by a better theologian than you, our saviour himself?’ Clement of Alexandria, in the first chapter of the Stromata, wrote that, ‘This Moses was a theologian and prophet, and as some say, an interpreter of sacred laws.’ Athanasius of Alexandria, in his Against the heathens identified the apostle John as a theologian. The company of those identified as theologians by the Fathers is therefore a fairly rarefied one: Moses, John, and Jesus. What about those of us who are not patriarchs, apostles, or the son of God, but still think to call ourselves theologians?

Evagrius of Pontus’ Chapters on Prayer provides a starting point: ‘If you are a theologian, you will pray truly and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.’ As this is very nearly a koan it benefits from some reflection.

My work on Gregory’s title, presenting up as it did with a less dramatic history than many had previously believed, nevertheless made me reflect on the fact that Gregory himself didn’t trace the descent of Christian theologians from John or Paul but from Jesus himself. When Evagrius, who studied under Gregory in Constantinople, enjoins the theologian to true prayer, it is no doubt that he has in mind something like what Gregory wrote in his twentieth oration: ‘But before we rise above it as far as possible and sufficiently purified our ears and minds, I think it is dangerous either to accept the responsibility for other souls or to take up theology.’ Evagrius did not enjoin one and all to be theologians, but instead set out a high bar to clear. In contrast with Greco-Roman theologians, but in that tradition of Moses, John, and Jesus, Christian theologians are characterised by a boldness of speaking of and seeking a truth at the heart of creation: not gods, but God; not fable, but truth; not words, but Word. It is not for nothing that countless Fathers equated theology with true philosophy, and theologians as true philosophers. To jump forward in time about a millennium, Calvin, himself a ‘minister of the word of God’, offered an insight in the form of a contrast in his reply to the Syndics of Geneva in 1552: ‘[M]elanchthon, being a timorous man, has accommodated himself too much to the common feeling of mankind, that he might not give occasion to over-curious people to seek to pry into the secret things of God. And thus, as at last appears, he has spoken of the present question rather as a philosopher than a theologian, having no better authority to rest upon than that of Plato.’ This cuts to the heart of the problem.

It is an act of incredible boldness to count oneself a Christian theologian. If we want to put ourselves in the tradition Moses, John, and Jesus we are self-consciously taking on a great responsibility not just to our work but to those who might read it. Alongside this, Augustine’s criticisms of Greco-Roman theology describe the shape of a present threat. It is only too easy to see how a theologian could easily lapse into the errors of identified in Varro’s mythic, civil, and natural theologies of Greco-Roman antiquity. To be a Christian theologian is therefore not just an act of boldness but an undertaking that requires an ongoing willingness to acknowledge that the aim and orientation of the enterprise is more explosive than what Augustine derided. It is this, more than anything, that not only justifies but requires a sort of self-reflexivity from those who engage with Christian theology about what, exactly, they are. More than a few of us would probably sympathise with Luther’s 1530 self-description in a letter about his translation of Psalm 118: ‘Out of a fat sophist I have turned into a sordid theologian; and besides this despicable store of theology I have nothing.’ Luther’s self-deprecating tone aside, theologians cannot be merely sophists. We are ultimately ill-served by the circularity of a rote dictionary entry in our self-definition.

Whatever the content of our theology we should acknowledge what it is for beyond the act itself. If we are going to align ourselves to Moses, John, or Jesus (or, as the case may be, to Gregory, Augustine, Evagrius, Luther, or Calvin) rather than Musaeus, Linus, and Orpheus then we should do so with our eyes open to the nature of that responsibility but clear to the truth that role of the theologian, should we choose to take it on, is not diminished except where we choose to diminish it.

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